My wife and I took a week off to visit England this week — actually, it was six days. Actually, because two of those days were spent traveling from Texas to England and back, we really had only four days.
I was struck by the density of London’s population. Regardless of where we were in the city, the streets were crowded with cars, buses, taxis — and cyclists.
Maybe it was our base of operations — we were in Bloomsbury, around the block from the British Museum and close to the the University of London — but lots of cyclists were out on the streets all day long. Most of them were commuters or what we call “utility” cyclists. They were using their bikes not for recreation, but to get somewhere, or deliver something.
Cycle Hire stands can be found every few blocks, and they are well used. Tourists, students, and business people could all be seen riding the distinctive blue and silver bikes. The bikes look thick and heavy, but the ones I observed moved easily through the London traffic.
It does take some chutzpah to cycle in London, I think. Most of the narrow streets have little to no room for cyclists, who can be seen hugging the left curb. Motorists might not like cyclists, but I got the impression that cyclists are an accepted fact of life. I saw no confrontations, no flipping off, not even any horns honking. The cabs we rode in were driven by some of the most patient drivers I’ve ever seen, who often held back to give a bike a chance to squeeze into a traffic lane.
In fact, the only cabbie who complained about bikes was the fellow we rode with in Cambridge, and even his criticism took a constructive turn. When we were held up by a woman and her daughter on bikes, the cabbie observed that the woman needed to watch her daughter more closely to teach proper cycling technique. The little girl got too far out in the traffic lane for the cabbie’s taste.
Our own plans for biking in London fell victim to the foul weather. It rained three of the four days we were there, and a bike tour of the city we had booked was canceled. That only increased my admiration for the everyday commuters, who braved the rain with aplomb.
With only four days, I really couldn’t get a thorough overview of cycling in London. My impression is that it is regarded as more of a fact of life than it is in the States. London is by no means the ideal cycling city, but it’s head and shoulders above most cities over here. We’re already talking about our next trip there, and how this time, we’ll be on bikes.